In my day job, I often get frustrated by people that avoid doing math. My particular area of interest there is network and server capacity questions – there are senior people that do not understand that putting something on a server somewhere does not make it instantly available to an organization with more than 600,000 full time employees.
Simple, but often avoided math calculations could show them that there is a lot more to making that material really available. It really matters how big the “something” is in terms of bits and bytes, how quickly you want everyone to see it, how big the server is, how fast its disk drives are, how much available capacity each leg in the network reaching the server has, and how much available capacity each member’s connection to the network has.
Each time you want to make a different “thing” available to the organization, you really should do that quick calculation to determine if you need to put it on multiple servers, give people sufficient time to get to it, and even whether or not the something is large enough to require consideration of additional capacity.
In the same way I get frustrated with people that get really excited about wind, solar, ethanol, and biodiesel. Sure, they all produce power without using petroleum. Sure they can all make a contribution. Sure, it is possible to begin production of any of them quicker than you can build a single nuclear power plant. The problem of replacing petroleum, coal and gas, however is one of a known magnitude and when you do the math, (which admittedly can get pretty complex) you should be able to see the difficulty in making the assertion that any of the above sources can really make much impact.
Take ethanol, for example. People point to Brazil’s 30 year effort to increase its ethanol production to the point where it can make them independent of oil imports. That large, dedicated effort has yielded some impressive results leading to a situation where the country is the poster child for those who believe that crop sourced fuel is the way to go for the future. There have even been people in Congress who have suggested that US drivers could substantially benefit if we began importing “cheap” ethanol from Brazil.
The euphoria can die quickly, however, if one understands that Brazil’s daily ethanol production is the equivalent of 300,000 barrels of oil per day; just 1.5% of the US daily consumption of oil (roughly 20,000,000 barrels of oil per day). Remember, it took Brazil 30 years of steady effort to get where they are and the people that live in Brazil consume essentially all of the available production and still need to use gasoline for part of their driving fuels.
How long would it take, how much capital would it require, and how many man-years of labor would it take to build the US capacity for production to the point where it would make any difference? Once we could produce that quantity, what is the continuing effort required to grow, gather, process and distribute the necessary fuel to keep making a difference? I do not know the answer to the questions, but I can tell you that the back of the envelope shows me that it would take much longer than spooling up our capacity to produce enough nuclear power to make far more of a difference.
History is on the side of atomic power – in about 50 years with a lot of focused opposition, the world’s nuclear power production capacity went from zero to the equivalent of more than 12 million barrels of oil per day! That production capacity is so compact, however, that there are plenty of people that have never even seen a nuclear power plant in person and far fewer that have ever seen a uranium mine or a commercial fuel production facility.